Animal welfare vs conservation: the case of China’s tigers
South Africa’s National Council of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) is once again in a flap over the methods used in a fascinating project that seeks to “rewild” rare Chinese tigers so their offspring can then be released into a natural setting.
It is a project that I followed closely when I was based in South Africa — I covered the arrival of the first cubs in Pretoria — and that I now track from afar in Dallas.
The project, run by the charity Save China’s Tigers and set on a 33,000-hectare ranch in South Africa’s Free State Province, basically tries to “teach” the big cats to hunt for themselves and other survival skills. It is the brainchild of an energetic Chinese woman named Li Quan.
The hope is that the adult tigers will impart their acquired skills to their offspring which can then be released into the wild in China. Estimates and data are scanty but there are only believed to be around 10 to 30 individuals left in the wild of the Chinese sub-species of the tiger family, also known as the South China tiger.
Two sets of cubs have been flown to South Africa and while one male named Hope has died one pair successfully bred last year, producing a male South China tiger cub. The reserve also has a five-year-old male for breeding purposes.
This is the backdrop to this tale which one would think would have the whole-hearted support of the animal-loving community. It doesn’t.
The problem in the eyes of some animal welfare groups is that the tigers are being trained to hunt through the use of live animals such blesbok, a kind of antelope, which are released into a 40-hectare camp.
South Africa’s SPCA claims in a statement on its website that “Life Feeding – It Happens Here” and has taken the issue to the courts.
“It is a spurious argument that carnivores need to be fed animals, live. Not in captivity they don’t!,” the SPCA, which regards the practice as cruel, says.
As cubs they were allowed to have a go at live chickens and I recall the SPCA raising a fuss about that as well. I recall thinking at the time what was more important, a few chickens or the fate of a wild species and an iconic one at that whose plight could help draw attention and save others?
In the case of blesbok one could argue that as a wild African antelope they can only expect to come to a sticky end anyway — that is the typical fate of herbivores in the real world. And how else are the tigers expected to learn how to hunt? Would it not be cruel to cast them into the wild with no survival skills or lock them up for life in a zoo?
And if this experiment works it could help save wild populations of other large predators — animals that are finding they are less and less welcome in an increasingly crowded world.
Or does the SPCA have a good point? Is it just plain cruel to feed live animals to predators in a simulated setting?
This story does point to one of the many forks in the road where animal welfare groups and some conservationists part company. Other “green divisions” include broader battles that are being waged over the sustainable use or commercial exploitation of wildlife and those who oppose it, often on cruelty grounds.
What do you think?